How one Mississippi town rebuilds hurricane after hurricane

Residents of tiny Pearlington, often overlooked by the media and federal-aid donors, rely on grit and small-town selflessness to survive repeated natural disasters.

By , Correspondent

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    Southern charm: A car travels down one of two main roads in Pearlington, an often forgotten town in rural Mississippi, where more than 100 homes were flooded last week by hurricane Gustav.
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The live oaks that sprawl across the Southern landscape are like no other tree. Their trunks are massive, the limbs long and twisting, drooping to the ground, stretching to the sky, spreading to touch other trees. Most are hundreds of years old. Some thousands. They’ve seen floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes.

And still they survive, the wood growing harder, stronger, more resilient, through every trial they endure. In Pearlington, Miss., they’re everywhere, a fitting symbol for a town that refuses to die and 800 residents who bend, but will not break.

It’s easy to overlook Pearlington. There are no red lights to stop drivers as they cross the state line into Louisiana, no gas station to buy a Coke. There’s no tax base, no local government. It lacks the glitz of Biloxi or the quiet coastal beauty of Pass Christian. It is a forgotten place in the middle of nowhere, appearing briefly on the radar following hurricane Katrina and disappearing just as quickly.

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With last week’s hurricane Gustav being touted as a relatively minor storm, and Louisiana again capturing the national spotlight, no one in Pearlington is waiting for aid, even though 100 homes were flooded or destroyed, some only months after being rebuilt following hurricane Katrina. Instead, residents wearily pick up their brooms once more, sweeping away the water and mud that covers almost everything in this battered corner of rural Mississippi.

In a town that’s less than 10 feet above sea level, it’s an almost yearly ritual, this cleanup and recovery, but residents never get used to it. Mark Evans and his wife, Janyne, have lost five homes and three businesses to the four bodies of water that surround Pearlington. This week, they’re removing Gustav’s calling card, showing up early and leaving late in an attempt to get their restaurant ready for business once more.

”We could move anywhere,” says Mr. Evans as he sits on a stool, a gold cane between his knees. In the background, his wife’s mud-splattered camouflage boots never stop moving. One minute she’s scrubbing garbage cans; the next, she’s offering ham sandwiches to the people who’ve stopped their own cleanup to congregate here, less for the food than for the company.

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Turtle Creek Bar and Grill, one of only three businesses in town, is the gathering place, the one spot where people can grab a bite to eat, find a friendly face, or rest a while and forget their problems. Evans says that’s the main reason he stays. He and his wife feel a deep attachment and grave responsibility to the people of Pearlington. The elementary school is gone, vanquished by Katrina. Many of their friends and neighbors are gone, discouraged by the destruction that seemed insurmountable.

But still they believe, drawing inspiration from the determination of their neighbors along the coast, who restored their communities following the devastation of hurricane Camille in 1969 and hurricane Frederic in 1979, and are just beginning to recover from hurricane Katrina three years ago. It isn’t easy. Evans gazes out towards Cowan Bayou as he talks about the three-story home he lost in 2002.

“It was built out of wood from a 200-year-old hotel,” he says. “Absolutely gorgeous. A one-of-a-kind home.”

Tedi Bega agrees. She remembers the way neighbors used to flock to the house when they caught the scent of a fish fry in the air or the sound of children racing up and down the stairs and tumbling on the lawn. Everyone was welcome. There are no strangers in Pearlington, only family and “adopted” family.

Hurricane Isadore filled the house with six feet of water, but Evans was undaunted. The waters would recede; the mud could be removed. Two weeks later, hurricane Lili erased that hope, sweeping the couple’s dream home away, leaving nothing behind but a few photographs.
“I loved that home,” Evans says. “It took the wind out of my sails for a few days.”

But he walked away and started life again, purchasing the restaurant and throwing himself into its success. “You don’t sit on your hands and cry,” he says. “You just go on.”

It’s a sentiment shared throughout the town. A stubborn faith that hard work will persevere and determination will triumph. A willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve a life residents say they’ve never found in larger cities.

Andy Collins greets the throng milling outside the restaurant, then takes his place as if he’s been here forever. He came to Pearlington three years ago and never left.
“It’s the people,” he says. “They’re a rare breed. They made me feel welcome from Day 1. We all stick together.”

Mr. Collins stayed in his trailer during Gustav before finally fleeing during the height of the storm. He shudders as he recalls watching the fetid salt water flow over the hood of his truck as he navigated his way past wind-lashed trees and floating logs to get to higher ground.

He’d just reached safety when he received a phone call – a friend in trouble, trapped in a house with his dog. He knew his truck was the only thing he’d have when the storm was over, so he left it on Highway 90 and swam to his friend’s house. He says there were times he was sure he would drown, but he kept going.

As he talks, more people arrive, and the air is filled with calls of “Ya’ll hungry?,” “Wanna Coke?,” and “Watch for snakes!” The Evanses are feeding everyone who shows up at the restaurant, just as they have after every hurricane.

Bill White arrives and three dogs rush to his truck to receive Milk-Bones he’s doling from the box he always carries with him. He’s known for taking in storm-stricken animals. Like everyone else, he shrugs it off. It’s just what you do. If you have something, you share it. If you need something, someone offers it. It’s life in Pearlington.

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Glenn Locklin joins what’s starting to look like a family reunion. His shirt is off and rivers of sweat roll down his sunburned back. Mr. Locklin, a Tennessee contractor, came to help Pearlington rebuild following Katrina. Three years later, he and his team of volunteers have built 47 homes here. Seven remain, but Gustav has created new work.

He won’t be going home anytime soon. A tattoo on the fourth finger of his left hand tells the story – an inked replacement of the wedding band he sold to buy building supplies, the symbol of love he relinquished to give a tangible reminder of the devotion he’s developed for these people. “Katrina was bad, but it was one of the best things that could happen to this town,” he says. “We know now we can make it.”

We. Not they, but we. Two letters that say everything about the depth of his feeling for the town. He climbs to his feet and heads to a house he’s building. Andy Collins returns to clean his flooded trailer. Janyne Evans drags yet another garbage can out for scrubbing. Mark Evans talks to a new set of men who’ve arrived for lunch.

Work resumes. Life goes on, even as another set of hurricanes marches forward in the Gulf.

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